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Pusha T- Koko, London 06/6/2014

09 June 2014, 16:00 | Written by Sam Kriss

Pusha T’s appearance at Koko is heralded by the obligatory warm-up rundown of hip-hop history, Biggie and 2Pac mixing with the sweetly acrid smell of weed smoke in the air, all hemmed in by cracking varnish of the former theatre’s Baroque interior. Midway through, the man himself shuffles onto the stage, coughs into the microphone, and retreats; he looks a little awkward and unsure of himself. When he finally arrives for good, Push is sweaty, smiling, and jubilant – maybe just a little too jubilant.

In a tightly packed space full of gunfingers and roving coloured stage lights, it’s inevitable that some of the slow drawling menace of his delivery might be lost. In the studio, Pusha T’s voice slides over the track with throaty menace, cold and lubricious; he sounds like someone who will – slowly and deliberately and taking no small pleasure in the deed – seek you, find you, and kill you. Onstage he’s more relaxed: jumping maniacally, belting out his eminently quotable lines (“Nosestalgia”’s “I started out as a baby-faced monster/No wonder there’s a diaper rash on my conscience,” or “Sweet Seranade”’s “Scoring from the heights but I wanted mine purer/Aryan, blonde hair, blue-eyed like the Führer”) in a triumphant roar as the audience chants along; it’s fun, but he seems a little like his own hype man. Or, when he and the backup singer hop around and make choreographed hand gestures, it’s hard to not get the impression that they’re dancers flanking an absent frontman. Even Push’s trademark ‘yeuch’s are noticeably absent: they work on track, but he’s not going to do a Johnny Rotten and openly display disgust for his audience.

In a raucous club environment, some of the subtleties of production are drowned out, but this is hardly a cause for complaint. The bass comes in thick rumbling waves that shake the phlegm from your lungs; it’s like having a paving slab chucked at your chest. The first half of the set is dominated by last year’s excellent My Name Is My Name, a title Push occasionally repeats with one hand held up to the audience, a strangely religious pose somewhere between a guilty confession and the thunderous self-declaration of God in Exodus 3:14: “I am that I am.” This is broken by a short interlude in which he reels off a few anecdotes from the recording sessions that went in to 2012’s GOOD Music compilation Cruel Summer, along with some anthemic tracks from the album. The biggest commotion follows the initial bars of Chief Keef’s “Don’t Like” – but given Pusha T’s limited role on the album, most tracks end up being cut short, or else his backup singer is forced to play the role of Kanye West or Big Sean. Finally, he closes with the propulsive single “Numbers on the Boards,” a brilliantly sparse arrangement of growling bass and clattering off-beat drums.

After the encore, Push has a little more space to draw out some of the subtleties in his music. Hundreds of phone screens and even the occasional lighter dance over the crowd for “40 Acres,” a lingeringly melancholic track that also includes the line “I’ll probably never pull your chair out, bitch” – at once the last desperate hurrah of rap misogyny and a sign of its grudging reconciliation with second-wave feminism. Always a consummate ironist, Pusha T follows this with a “song for the ladies” (all three of them present, as he wryly points out): “Trust You” from last year’s Wrath of Caine, with its sweetly romantic chorus “Girl I’ll trust you with my drugs/Might trust you with my money.”

In the end, his set demonstrates Pusha T’s versatility: he can play the euphoric party rapper just as well as he can the cold-eyed killer. Still, it’d be interesting to see what he could do with a larger venue: he boasts of selling out Koko, but it’s still a fairly small room; more space might give him room to fully explore some of his personae.

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